Conversation: Susan Hwang of Bushwick Book Club

By Jason Diamond

Take a book, get a few songwriters to read it, then ask them to write a song based on the book. That sounds like a pretty simple equation. So why has nobody thought of it until Susan Hwang?
Her creation, the Bushwick Book Club, might be one of the best ideas to pop out of Brooklyn in quite some time, and this week Hwang and friends will take on their biggest challenge yet: The Bible.
Hwang recently sat down with me in a Cobble Hill cafe.

What are the origins of the Bushwick Book Club?
The origins of the book club are in zombies and songs about zombies. I was asked to play for a horror-themed rock-cabaret night, and I promised 4 songs about zombies. I didn’t know anything about them, so I had to do a lot of research. I found myself writing about the George Romero “Night of the Living Dead” movies, and I really liked making songs out of and in response to a narrative. I had also met so many musicians and songwriters in the past couple of years, and I thought this would be a nice way for these musicians and writers from different scenes to showcase what their doing and also to meet and hang out with each other.

How far in advance do you pick the books for each event?
The whole year’s calendar was pretty much set from the very first one in January of this year. We had a few gaps and a couple changes, but the year’s schedule has been up there.

Do you have a background in songwriting?
No. I remember I tried to write a song once when I was 14, and it was so hard I gave up and didn’t try again until I was 31. I was the front person for a heavy rock band, Murderizer, and I wrote the lyrics for that and developed my own vocal parts, but I didn’t try writing a whole song myself until I started Clean & Nasty in 2005. Oh, that’s a lie. I just remembered I wrote my first song as a fluke when I was in college. The chord progression I stole from “Blue Moon,” and it was called, “Masturbation in my Mother’s Room.” I have a BA in English (creative writing) from The University of Maryland.

Could something like B.B.C. have started anywhere other than Goodbye Blue Monday?
It doesn’t seem like there are many places that have such a caring of the artistic community in New York these days. No, I can’t imagine the book club starting anywhere else. It’s funny, because after people started hearing about us, managers from Manhattan venues asked if we’d bring the book club to their places, but of course, our home is Goodbye Blue Monday. It’s easy to want something after seeing it there in existence and working. It takes something different to allow someone the space to develop something new. I think it’s a kind of bravery. Steve Trimboli, the owner of Goodbye Blue Monday, is definitely not afraid of new things. He let me have a weekly residency there in early 2008 when I wanted to work on my solo material, and when I asked him for a songwriting book club, he said yes. He’s also let me have weekly yoga and tarot card classes there. Basically, if you have a scheme, he lets you hatch it. In many ways, he’s one of the most nurturing people I know.

You are taking on the Bible next, that seems pretty epic. Do you have a particular story that you want somebody to tackle?
No. I can’t think of a particular story. And mostly, I know that whatever I anticipate, the reality of the songs and the perspectives illustrated that night will be surprising. That’s what I love best about the book club. You can never predict what will manifest from the huge and fearless creativity of these writers. I’m serious. I remember in the very first one (Breakfast of Champions), Phoebe Kreutz killed me with her song from Wayne Hoobler’s point of view, “Fairyland.” It was sweet and moving and from this relatively minor character’s point of view. It brought attention to the sadness and beauty there that I would have otherwise mostly overlooked. And I remember being pleasantly shocked when Duck and Swallow played her electronic dance number about female characters in Flatland, “They think we’re flat, but we’re really really pointy…” So good.

What are your favorite books that you would like to one day see performed?
Well, people are talking about having an epic assignment like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Personally, I want to do some kind of trashy, celebrity bio and also a non-trashy, non-celebrity bio. And I’ve secretly been holding onto the idea of doing one of my favorite books, “The Birth and Death of Meaning” – Ernest Becker. It was my pool-side reading last summer. So good.

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  1. Susan,
    Even before I read this article, I was thinking what a very literary musician you are and VOILA – congratulations on the concept and recognition…and it was gratifying to read a bit of a chronology of your development. I look forward to hearing the song for "The Birth and Death of Meaning".
    Carol C